Few roads in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest are open to ATVs, now that the Forest Service has reaffirmed its policy in light of a new state law. File photo by Marcy Stamper

Few roads in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest are open to ATVs, now that the Forest Service has reaffirmed its policy in light of a new state law. File photo by Marcy Stamper

By Marcy Stamper

In another policy reversal, the U.S. Forest Service has determined that all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) are not permitted on most roads in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

Because the 2013 state law that provides for increased ATV access does not apply to “non-highway roads”—which includes roads managed by public agencies—the law does not change access in the forest, according to a letter sent to area newspapers on May 15 by Michael Balboni, supervisor of the forest.

Shortly after the state law passed last July, the Forest Service released a statement saying that ATVs were not permitted on national forest roads in Washington, but this March Balboni determined that there was no legal means to prohibit ATVs from traveling on roads in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

Last week’s decision reverts to the status quo in the forest. That means that only those roads designated for ATVs before the state law changed remain open to the vehicles, according to Mick Mueller, acting public affairs officer for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

The change in the Forest Service position comes as counties, cities and other public land managers are also trying to interpret the 38-page ATV law and its stated intent, to expand opportunities for ATV riders while increasing enforcement and protecting natural resources.

Okanogan County is in the process of reviewing its ATV policy, following the repeal in March by the county commissioners of two ordinances that would have allowed ATVs on most county roads. The commissioners will hold a public hearing June 16 on a new proposal to add another 600 miles of roads to the 336 where ATV riders can already travel.

“This really is a clarification of where ATVs can ride,” said Mueller. “It’s all about researching the language of the state law about the effect on national forest roads. We had to investigate what the law says.”

The Forest Service generally follows state and local laws for traffic safety, which guided Balboni’s interpretation in March that there was no basis for prohibiting ATVs, said Mueller.

Land managers for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest have been consulting for months with the Pacific Northwest Regional Office about the interpretation of the Washington law, said Mueller. One reason the application of the law is less-clear-cut in the Okanogan-Wenatchee is that this is the only national forest in the state that has not completed its travel planning process and does not have detailed maps showing every road and the types of vehicles permitted to use the roads, said Mueller. 

The Forest Service travel planning process is the appropriate tool for analyzing roads and the vehicles that can use them, with a focus on public safety and the potential for resource damage, said Mueller. The Okanogan-Wenatchee started work on its travel plan about 10 years ago and expects to issue a draft environmental impact statement on the plan for public comment in about six months, he said.

Two environmental organizations, the Methow Valley Citizens’ Council and Conservation Northwest, sent a letter to Balboni last month saying the Forest Service’s decision to allow ATVs to use roads in the forest “is unlawful and should be reversed immediately.” The same groups successfully sued Okanogan County last year over the two ordinances that were subsequently withdrawn.

“MVCC is pleased that the forest supervisor has rescinded his earlier policy allowing ATVs on Forest Service roads prior to the completion of the travel plan,” said the group in a statement issued this week. “MVCC is not opposed to allowing ATVs on selected roads within the Forest Service road network as long as there has been a thoughtful engineering and environmental analysis. We only wish Okanogan County had taken this approach.”

In addition to sending letters to the editors of newspapers in Central Washington, Forest Service personnel have talked to ATV rider groups, county commissioners and other elected officials in the affected counties, legislators who worked on the ATV law, and representatives from environmental groups that have contacted the Forest Service about the policy, said Mueller.